Wednesday, March 11, 2015

In Dollars We Trust
Over the past few years, several Fed officials have said that they would start raising interest rates only when they believed that the economy had achieved “escape velocity.” In recent months, they’ve been preparing the launching pad for “lift-off” around mid-2015. To do so, they tapered QE last year and terminated it last October. They dropped the “considerable time” language from the January 28 FOMC statement, indicating that since QE bond purchases were finished, the time for hiking rates was drawing near.

The result so far has been that the JP Morgan trade-weighted dollar lifted off from last year’s low of 83.75 on July 1 to 98.33 yesterday. The dollar immediately achieved escape velocity, rising almost vertically by 17% over this period to the highest level since September 3, 2003. The Fed’s “major” and “broad” measures of the trade-weighted dollar are following the same path as the JP Morgan version--which includes Australia, Canada, China, Denmark, Eurozone, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and the UK.

Adding rocket fuel to the almighty dollar have been moves by the ECB and BOJ towards ultra-easier monetary policies, which further weakened their currencies. Let’s review recent developments that have sent the dollar soaring and consider the implications for Fed policy:

(1) Euro getting trashed. The ECB’s Governing Council agreed at the June 5, 2014 meeting of the committee to “targeted longer-term refinancing operations” (TLTROs). At his monthly press conference on August 7 last year, ECB President Mario Draghi said, “the fundamentals for a weaker exchange rate are today much better than they were two or three months ago.” At the time, the euro was at $1.30.

On October 11, Bloomberg reported that ECB President Mario Draghi told reporters in Washington that expanding the ECB’s balance sheet is the last monetary tool left to revive inflation, although there is no target for how much it might be increased. He said, “I gave you a kind of ballpark figure, say about the size the balance sheet had at the start of 2012.” That would be a remarkable increase of €1.0 trillion. The euro was at $1.26.

On November 21, in a keynote speech in Frankfurt, Draghi said that the ECB will “do what we must to raise inflation and inflation expectations as fast as possible.” In effect, he backed US-style quantitative easing. On January 22, the Governing Council voted to implement QE, with bond buying starting this week. The euro was down below $1.07 yesterday, probably on its way to parity with the dollar.

(2) Yen is stir fried. On October 31 of last year, the BOJ announced a significant increase in bond and stock purchases. During April 2013, the BOJ implemented a similar program that was supposed to revive Japan’s economy and end deflation as part of Abenomics. The BOJ upped the ante at the end of October 2014. According to the BOJ’s press release, the bank would triple the pace of its buying of stock and property funds, extend the average maturity of its bondholding by three years to 10 years, and raise the ceiling of its annual Japanese government bond purchases by ¥30 trillion to ¥80 trillion. The yen has declined by a whopping 36% since late 2012.

(3) Commodity exporters freefalling. Also jumping off the currency cliff since last summer have been the commodity producers. The Canadian and Australian dollars are down 12% and 15% on a y/y basis. The Brazilian real is down 25% y/y. The South African rand is down 13% y/y. The Mexican peso is down 15% y/y.

(4) Downside of depreciation. Some of the currency depreciation pressures are home brewed. However, adding to everyone’s misery is the anticipation of monetary normalization in the US. While the US economy might be ready for it, the rest of the world may not be so ready. Indeed, plunging currencies are offsetting some of the benefit of falling oil prices for oil-importing countries. Rising US interest rates might also unsettle foreign bond and stock markets, especially in the emerging economies. The risks that something will break are increasing as the dollar continues to soar.

(5) Risky business for US. There are also risks for the US in a soaring dollar. It gives a competitive advantage to our trading partners. That means it stimulates our imports while depressing our exports. In addition, it depresses the dollar value of profits from overseas. Profits drive employment and capital spending. So weaker profits attributable to the strong dollar can slow the economy down.

There is a strong correlation between the y/y growth rates in S&P 500 forward earnings and aggregate weekly hours worked in private industry. The y/y growth rate of capital spending in real GDP is also driven by this profits cycle.

(6) Fed’s tough exit act. The bottom line is that the Fed has a problem. The FOMC rarely considers the impact of the dollar on the US economy. The subject is almost never discussed at the FOMC meetings. The members of the committee may need to give more weight to the soaring dollar in their deliberations. They have three options for the rest of this year. They can proceed to normalize monetary policy and raise interest rates a few times this year. “One-and-done” is another option. So is “none-and-done.” Debbie and I still believe that the last two are more likely than normalization given that the dollar will continue to soar if the Fed doesn’t back off.
(Based on an excerpt from YRI Morning Briefing)

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